The University of Calgary's mishandling of a Facebook group critical of one of its professors is a black mark on the institution. In a case that goes to the heart of free speech and rule of law, the university prosecuted 10 students involved in the social media site named "I no longer fear hell, I took a course with Aruna Mitra," and convicted them of nonacademic misconduct.
Now 20-year-old twins Keith and Steven Pridgen, who started the Facebook group, have been forced to go to court, requesting a judicial review they hope will clear their names.
Indeed the court should rule the university acted inappropriately by disciplining the students, who have the right to express their opinions and prove what they say is either the truth or fair comment. What court has heard so far of what appeared on the website seems quite mild. Other sites, such as Rank My Professor, freely allow students to say far worse about their professors. Rank My Professor gave Mitra, who is no longer at the U of C, the dreadfully low ranking of 1.1 out of five.
The Facebook group criticized her lack of knowledge of the course material, said she frequently said "don't quote me on that," and often answered students' questions with "what do you think?" The group also described the professor as inept, awful, and "illogically abrasive," and claimed that she said "um" over 260 times during one class.
The Pridgens argue their constitutional right to freedom of expression has been violated. The university's position is the page was "injuring (the professor's) reputation and character in a public manner," U of C lawyer Kevin Barr told the court.
Universities are supposed to be bastions of free speech, yet U of C appears to be moving further down the precariously dangerous path of censorship. Instead of encouraging independent thought, critical thinking and a free exchange of ideas, the institution's actions have put a chill on criticism. Equally troubling is its heavy-handed, disciplinary process which robbed defendants in this instance of a fair hearing.
One of the professors who investigated on behalf of the university was Mitra's spouse, and hardly impartial. When the students appeared before the investigating panel, they were refused an opportunity to give evidence. Surely the dean of legal studies, who headed the panel, knows about the defence of truth, which the law of defamation affords, meaning the students should have been given the opportunity to prove their statements.
Yet, two 20-year-olds -- who paid good money to study at the U of C-- find themselves in court, seeking due diligence, and along the way, exposing the sham of a process they were subjected to by the school. The boys should be commended for having the courage to stand up to this injustice.
The university needs to learn a lesson. Its actions, at least in relation to the Facebook incident, have left it with egg on its face and no amount of censorship will cover that up.